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Metis “Soldiers”

by Gwain Hamilton

Manitoba Pageant, Autumn 1965, Volume 11, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

The Metis of the Red River Settlement had a continent-wide reputation as a military force. This they had gained, in large part, by their refusal to bow to the warlike and predatory Sioux Indians. In pitched battles with these "Tigers of the Plains", or from behind their rings of Red River carts or their rifle pits, the Red River Metis had fought the Sioux to a standstill.

In American territory the proud Sioux had a name for people of mixed blood. It was a term of contempt - "the Slota" or "greasy ones." But when they referred to the Red River Metis it was in terms of respect.

Although the great battles between the Sioux and the Red River Metis occurred in the 1850's the reputation of the Metis as soldiers was well known many years before. Their ability had attracted to the Red River Settlement in 1836 a visionary named "General" James Dickson. Dick-son was apparently a man of education, refinement and independent means. He had spent some time in Mexico and was obsessed with the idea of liberating the Indians of the Spanish empire and establishing a kingdom in California of which he was to be head. In Washington and New York where he had attempted to recruit men for his army he had styled himself "Montezuma II, Liberator of the Indian Nations."

In Montreal Dickson recruited a number of half-breed sons of Hudson's Bay Company officers and resplendent in gaudy uniforms this small group set out for Red River. For the Metis of Red River Dickson had reserved a great honour. They were to serve as his army of liberation. With such fighters, he thought, could he fail.

With about sixty men Dickson set out from Buffalo, N.Y. in August, 1836. Ill-fortune dogged every step of the way. The ship on which he and his men were travelling was wrecked. At Sault Ste. Marie the party was detained for investigation by the American authorities. Desertion and hardship so reduced Dickson's army during the trip that by December, 1836 when the group reached Red River only Dickson and eleven followers had remained together for the final stage of the journey by dog-train and foot.

At Red River some misapprehension was felt regarding Dickson's party. Many people feared this adventure might appeal to the Metis. Under Cuthbert Grant a number of Metis had settled at Grantown (St. Francois Xavier) and this group comprising the only disciplined force in the Settlement at the time was its only protection from the Sioux.

The Hudson's Bay Company was particularly concerned and did everything it could to hinder and obstruct "General" Dickson. Acting on Governor George Simpson's personal instructions, the Governor of Assiniboia refused to honour Dickson's drafts. This left him without money. Some members of his staff were lured away by offers of employment with the Company.

At Grantown General Dickson was received with a dignity and pride that was in sharp contrast to the attitude of those on the Red River who doubted the loyalty of the Metis. He remained an honoured guest in the Metis settlement for the winter and while he received no aid or recruits he was provided with guides and carts to assist him on his way to far-off Santa Fe.

In the spring as he prepared to leave the Settlement Dickson provided a grandstand play that delighted the Metis. His carts were ready to go - but he paused to pay a last tribute to the military prowess of the Metis and to Cuthbert Grant, a man, who in his youth, might also have cherished Dickson's dream of adventure and a "new Nation". "General" Dickson bowed his uncovered head, removed the epaulettes from his uniform, pinned them on Grant, tendered him his sword - and drove away.

Pierre Falcon, the Metis bard, and Cuthbert Grant's brother-in-law, wrote a song dramatizing Dickson's moving farewell. This song is reproduced in Margaret Arnett MacLeod's Songs of Old Manitoba.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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